A House committee voted on Wednesday to recommend for the first time the creation of a commission to consider providing Black Americans with reparations for slavery in the United States and a “national apology” for centuries of discrimination.
The vote by the House Judiciary Committee was a major milestone for proponents of reparations, who have labored for decades to build mainstream support for redressing the lingering effects of slavery. Democrats on the panel advanced the legislation establishing the commission over Republican objections, 25 to 17.
The bill — labeled H.R. 40 after the unfulfilled Civil War-era promise to give former slaves “40 acres and a mule” — still faces steep odds of becoming law. With opposition from some Democrats and unified Republicans, who argue that Black Americans do not need a government handout for long-ago crimes, neither chamber of Congress has committed to a floor vote.
But as the country grapples anew with systemic racism laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic and the death of George Floyd and other Black men in confrontations with the police, the measure has drawn support from the nation’s most powerful Democrats, including President Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader. Polling suggests that public support is growing, too, though it remains far from widespread.
positioned addressing racial inequities at the center of his domestic policy agenda, proposing billions of dollars in investments in Black farmers, business owners, neighborhoods, students and the poor. The White House has said Mr. Biden’s $4 trillion jobs agenda is intended, in part, to “tackle systemic racism and rebuild our economy and our social safety net so that every person in America can reach their full potential.”
The question of reparations to former slaves and their descendants has vexed and divided policymakers for generations, caught up in larger questions about the legacy of racism in America and white denial of the crippling effects of the slave economy. It presents thorny practical questions as well, like who should benefit, what form reparations might take and how to pay for them.
William T. Sherman, the Union general, made the first widespread attempt in 1865 with a special battlefield order to seize 400,000 acres of costal land and award it in parcels to former slaves. But after President Abraham Lincoln died later that year, his successor, Andrew Johnson, quickly rescinded it. No subsequent plan has come close to enactment.
Black representatives in Congress began rekindling the issue three decades ago when they first proposed a commission to explore it. The bill before the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday would establish a body to study the effects of slavery and the decades of economic and social discrimination that followed, often with government involvement, and propose possible ways to address the yawning gap in wealth and opportunity between Black and white Americans. It would also consider a “national apology” for the harm caused by slavery.
pledged $10 million this year in reparations in the form of housing grants to Black residents who can prove they or their ancestors were victims of redlining or other housing discrimination. But any national program would be much larger, with costs projected to range from the billions to trillions of dollars.